Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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The U-turn in the bumpy career of Danny Green came as he rode in the back of a Reno Bighorn van. On his way to practice on a dusty road in Nevada, Green’s cell phone rang. “Start packing,” the caller said last week. “You’re going back to San Antonio.”
A rush of emotion surged through Green. After six humbling weeks in the NBA’s Development League, after a passport misplaced in the mail cost him a job in Italy, after months of doubt and discouragement since his release from the Spurs, he’d secured a second chance. “I was so excited,” Green says, “I almost jumped out of the moving van.”
The timing of the call: perfect. March has almost always been Green’s month. At North Carolina, he made it to four NCAA Tournaments, his Tar Heels advancing deeper each year. In 2009, he reached April, and celebrated as no current Spur has -- with a national championship.
He remembers straining a stomach muscle against Michigan State, remembers fouling out. He also remembers the sweet aftermath: cutting down the nets, hugging teammates, embracing family. His one shining moment.
A smile creases his face. Green is sitting courtside at the AT&T Center, 90 minutes before tipoff against Charlotte, recalling a journey -- from North Carolina to Cleveland to San Antonio to Reno and back to the Alamo City -- and some turns along the way.
Winning the championship was big, yes. Winning in front of his father was even bigger. A year earlier, Danny Green Sr. sat in prison, staring at long, hard time. “I wasn’t sure,” young Danny says, “if he was ever going to make one of my college games.”
An assistant high school girls basketball coach, Danny’s father raised Danny and his brothers alone in North Babylon, Long Island after their mother left home. Dad cooked, helped the boys with homework, drove them to games, meted out discipline. Senior taught them how to play ball, taught them about life. Junior, meanwhile, set a fine example as big brother, looking after his siblings, becoming a McDonald’s All-American, enrolling at North Carolina.
Then his powder blue sky collapsed. Not long after his freshman season ended with an upset loss to George Mason, police knocked down the door to his father’s home in 2006. Authorities arrested Danny’s dad -- and more than a dozen others -- in connection with a massive drug raid. Police reportedly seized 420 pounds of cocaine worth more than $40 million.
The son got word from an uncle. The son’s teammates learned about the bust from news reports. Junior reeled. His father pleaded not guilty. A case of mistaken identity, he insisted. The judge set bail at $7.5 million. Dad sat behind bars, his oldest son in college, the others at home with an uncle, everyone confused. “He was incarcerated for (almost) two years,” Danny says.
His father might be in prison today if not for a deal offered in 2007 -- one to three years in exchange for a guilty plea to a conspiracy charge. Neither father nor son wanted to accept it. Why, they reasoned, should a man admit to something he didn’t do? Prosecutors dangled tempting bait: With credit for time served, Danny’s father could go home in about two months. All he had to do was plead.
And if he refused? He might be serving another 20 years. “I had a 10-year-old and a baby at home who needed me,” Danny Green Sr. says.
The son returned home with gifts -- jerseys, trophies, an Atlantic Coast Conference championship ring -- to surprise his newly paroled father. Now a junior, young Danny had grown into one of the nation’s best sixth men, a 6-foot-6 swingman who could score and rebound and touch a father’s heart.
The next season: magic. Danny Sr. followed his son -- finally a starter --through the madness of March to the euphoria of April. He was there when the Tar Heels won the national championship in Detroit, when his son looked into a throng of fans, searching for his father, listening for his voice. “I can yell at him from the stands,” the father says,”and there can be 80,000 people and he can hear me. That’s the kind of relationship we have.”
And when their eyes met? ”It was surreal, almost like I wasn’t there,” the father says. “I don’t know if words could describe what that was like. You send your kid off to college and hope for the best and then for that to happen. It was a dream come true, a climax.”
Disappointment followed in the NBA. He played one season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and got released before the second. The Spurs signed him to a 10-day contract and waived him before Thanksgiving. He decided to play in Italy but didn’t get his passport in time. He sat at home for two months, wound up in Reno.
Then came that call in the Bighorn van and look at him now. His Tar Heels have advanced to the Sweet 16, and the Spurs have signed him for the remainder of the season. “I’m so proud,” Danny Sr. says.
Danny, his father says, is living a remarkable story. In Chapel Hill, the son knew defeat and triumph, heartbreak and joy. In San Antonio, he once was down, now he’s up. Might junior be heading for another championship?
Considering the madness of the month -- riding in a D-League van one day, flying in an NBA charter the next-- and the vibe of the moment, it certainly feels like it.